One German city drops OpenOffice for MS Office: Why 'open source' still fails to impress

The original story was not very newsworthy at face value. An obscure, hard-to-pronounce city in Germany announced that its experiments with one time open source wonder OpenOffice had gone sour and they wanted their Microsoft Office back. Freiburg's city council released a draft resolution recently that covered numerous IT problems, but the one which raised more than a few eyebrows happened to be their frank disappointment with OpenOffice.

Among other things, the resolution had some pointed words about their OpenOffice experiences since 2007:

"In the specific case of the use of OpenOffice, the hopes and expectations of the year 2007 are not fulfilled... Therefore, a new Microsoft Office license is essential for effective operations."

In an attempt to save costs and try an alternative to Office, the city council voted in 2007 to allow for a side-by-side installation of Office 2000 (for backwards compatibility sake) and OpenOffice 3.2.1. Some of the hopes that the council had included an assumption that development of the suite would continue as presumed and offer new features and fixes. Those hopes fell flat after numerous years of trying to "wait it out" and see what happened. As their resolution accurately described:

"The divergence of the development community (LibreOffice on one hand Apache Office on the other) is crippling for the development for OpenOffice."

Of course, the open source community (especially Germany's own) have been up in arms ever since, calling this a smear of their efforts at large by nitpicking various aspects of this story. Yes, it is true that OpenOffice is currently at version 3.4.1 so the council is working on an out-of-date build. And yes, LibreOffice happens to be a (slightly) better alternative to the all but doomed core OpenOffice suite.

But I don't think either point really changes the fact that OpenOffice and LibreOffice are still slow; have too many document conversion shortcomings; and are honestly too bloated to be considered speed demons next to Office 2010 or 2013.

I'm not here to make a big stink about OpenOffice alone. It's quite well known that the suite doesn't win any speed or conversion crowns. And I know very well that there are numerous examples of great open source software, many of which I use all the time. VLC Media Player, Chromium, WordPress, just to name a few. But for all the good examples, there are still the longstanding mediocre ones plaguing the software landscape: Firefox, Thunderbird, ClamWin Antivirus, and the list goes on.

The shining stars of open source notwithstanding, what's the core issue with the majority of open source software and its community?

OpenOffice/LibreOffice are poster children for 'open source stagnancy'

I have to be fair here. Just so the fact-finders don't go berserk on me, let's make it fully clear that Microsoft's Office suite has been around in some form for about 22 years now. In contrast, OpenOffice has only been on the map for about 10 years (some say the suite's previous life as StarOffice tacks another 15 years onto its life, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt.) But does this relatively short life give the suite a continual excuse for working just as poorly overall as it did back in v3.2.1 (which Freiburg, Germany just dumped)?

Let's be honest with ourselves. Making broad comparisons between the core OpenOffice suite and its cousin LibreOffice is like having a deep debate about the qualities of two similarly sub-par vehicles. Sure, each one will get you from point A to B. And if all you're looking for is just to "get there" then there's not much disagreement we can have in that respect.

But the office suite debate has a lot more at stake. A platform as integral to the everyday life of so many people, like members of a city council, has to perform to a certain level of expectations. From poor file conversion fidelity to consistent sluggishness, the complaints of the Freiburg city council aren't that shocking if you've used the OpenOffice suite yourself. I admit that my company FireLogic happens to recommend LibreOffice in cases where budget is a concern - but I never make any promises of the suite as a full replacement of Microsoft Office.

Some readers of the technology news website NeoWin used this story as an opportunity to sound off on their own thoughts surrounding OpenOffice (and its shortcomings) at large. A user by the name of javagreen says:

"I'm a Windows *and* Linux user, and OpenOffice/LibreOffice don't come anywhere within a 1,000 foot radius of Microsoft Office. Different leagues altogether."

Fellow user Yogurtmaster didn't have a much better opinion of the alternative suite LibreOffice:

"LibreOffice is just as bad. They need to throw the entire thing away and start with code from today and build it into the future that makes sense, their UI is horrible and the compatibility that they have with Microsoft documents is horrible. The worst project in my opinion in open source."

And one user, norseman, provides some common sense advice for when Office alternatives make sense:

"OpenOffice and LibreOffice are fine for people that don't work with many other people or collaborate with the real world. If you are a student or a professional that wants to get published or do any real work, you're using Microsoft Office, pure and simple."

Not to join in on the chorus here, but my own experiences have similar misgivings about both of the two main Office alternatives. After 10 years of primetime development, and a 15 year backstory before that as StarOffice, how can OpenOffice/LibreOffice have made such relatively little progress in this fair amount of time?

I'm not just blowing hot air here - I gave both alternative platforms a try at various points in time but could never make the switch. I've honestly dumped likely three or four times as many hours into using Google Docs instead of Office compared to any time I've devoted to OpenOffice, mostly due to the same issues others gripe about.

I'm not tied to Office or Google Docs by any means, but they just work. They are fast, efficient, and compatible with most things I need to share with those I communicate with. The combination of the two got me through college and my professional life thus far. Their interfaces are relatively elegant and appeasing to the eye. I don't have to hunt through long 1990's dropdown menus to find what I need (usually through guessing, as OpenOffice has its own intricacies in item placement.) So why can't OpenOffice and LibreOffice get their acts together?

Are hardcore beliefs in 'technical purity' really more important than coming together to present a formidable challenge to Microsoft? For all the bad rap that Microsoft gets for its market position, it does have a quality product to offer with Office. A few users on the same NeoWin article happened to speak up in support of their thoughts on Office as a quality suite.

Primexx had this to say about the Ribbon UI:

"What MS did with the ribbon - surfacing some great but hard to find features - makes MSO a h*ll of a lot easier to use. That means less time wrestling with the program and more time working on the actual thing you're doing."

And another user, 68k, happens to agree:

"The ribbon makes a HUGE difference. It's pure genius in UI design."

While Microsoft and Google are introducing new features into Office and Google Docs at record paces, the open source community is struggling to merely keep up with the times. Even with its newfound forefront status, LibreOffice has not made any huge leaps in the past two years since its inception. Office document support is still pitiful at best; support for long complex formulas is buggy; and the developers think that having a "quickstarter" load on Windows startup is still more important than cleaning up an aging, clogged code base.

Freiburg's angst with OpenOffice file conversion is well founded

The city council that prompted this uproar surrounding OpenOffice claimed that file conversion fidelity from Office was one of the biggest problems they had with the suite. I've personally experienced similar issues with the suite, so I decided to give this argument a valid, up-to-date test based on what the open source community recommended to Freiburg: just install the latest LibreOffice.

I did exactly that (with LibreOffice 3.6.4), and tested multiple different documents both from my own collection and from online repositories to see if my results would be any different then past usage. On some documents, LibreOffice did better than others. In most cases, it had a tough time giving me 1:1 copies of what I had in Office. Google Docs generally did as good or better than LibreOffice, and in some instances such as this, it beat LibreOffice in conversion quality by a long shot:

So, is the community just blowing hot air when it comes to having qualms with file fidelity? As far as I can tell, serious problems still exist, as shown above from my own Windows 8 laptop. Google Docs clearly had little problem opening the document, and in all but one or two spots in this complex equation-filled file, Google Docs gave me a near replica of what Word 2013 showed.

I personally think the open source community behind LibreOffice and OpenOffice should take the experiences of Freiburg to heart and use this as a lesson that average people merely want functionality, not infighting and bickering about standards and code purity. There are relatively few governments giving open source the kind of love that Freiburg did, and if this bad reputation streak continues, fewer local and regional entities will be considering these suites anytime soon.

Open Source as a whole has an ongoing problem with focus and results

Say what you wish about Office, Windows, and even rival Apple's OS X for that matter - but they have a few things in common which open source alternatives simply cannot attest to. These products are all backed by solid development communities from their respective 'capitalist' backers, and continue to evolve at a rapid pace.

Microsoft introduced the Ribbon UI in Office 2007 and has fine-tuned it to a large extent for the newest Office 2013 release. Similarly, Windows Vista reinvented the desktop experience back in 2006 and by 2012 we already have the monumental shift in Windows 8. In the same amount of time, what can the community behind OpenOffice or LibreOffice claim? From everything I can gather, their biggest achievements surround the importing of Office OpenXML files and numerous pages of bug fixes. And in reality, all of this effort has only produced suites that are only marginally better than what they were years ago.

Isn't open source a community built on developers that believe in a higher purpose than their counterparts at paid software vendors? Isn't the "love of the product" much more altruistic and deep-rooted in a commitment to quality, openness, and transparency in secure code writing? Why do these very aspects of open source seem to instead foster a continual feeling of stagnancy and petty arguing?

John Dvorak penned a pretty spot-on article back in 2007 titled "What's Wrong with Open Source Software?" that shed some light on why open source is anything but a guarantee of quality, speedy development. He correctly pointed out:

"How many open-source projects have you seen in which the code gets leaner and meaner rather than fatter and fatter? With all the great coders out there, how many projects include coding features and how many include coding optimization?"

John goes on to make comparisons of the Linux coding community to those he calls the "Mac aficionados" in how they both collectively despise the greater of all evils, aka Microsoft. But more importantly, he accurately pinpoints that most open source projects tend to drag on for an eternity unless they are guided by strong one-man leaders.

However, even those strong-armed leaders aren't always the best at keeping the ship sailing down a solid course. It happens to be quite ironic that Linux's famous brainchild Linus Torvalds verbally assaulted graphics giant nVidia this past summer for their supposed inability to properly support the Linux community. I wonder how many in competing development circles have similar thoughts about the relative lack of consistent progress from the Linux community, likewise.

As John Dvorak sarcastically put it towards the end of his op/ed:

So because nobody [in open source] is making any money, and because it's done for the Utopian oneness, there will be no complaining. If you complain, then you suck!

I guess in a nutshell, he sums it up fairly well. Here's hoping that the open source community can learn from their money-making corporate counterparts and harness the power that open development theoretically should provide. Until then, I'm sticking with Office 2013 and Google Docs on my Windows 8 laptop, thank you.

Photo: chasmer/Shutterstock

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